The Color Purple Is in Broadway Form at Paper Mill Playhouse
John Doyle's 2016 Tony-winning revival makes an extra stop to follow its national tour.
John Doyle's bare bones revival of The Color Purple has been touring the country for a year, but it looks and sounds as brand-new as something just built from scratch. Whether or not you bore witness to its Tony-winning Broadway run in 2016 (or the musical's original production that opened on Broadway a decade earlier), the performance that has made it to the Paper Mill Playhouse stage is a special piece of theater.
Doyle's tchotchke-free staging of Alice Walker's 40-year epic, following Celie's journey from tortured childhood to peaceful adulthood in early 20th-century Georgia, is as poetic and efficient as ever — especially in the hands of the stunning Adrianna Hicks. Celie's silently concealed sexual abuse (resulting in two children by her stepfather), her isolation in her marriage to the violent Mister (Gavin Gregory), and her search for her lost children and sister Nettie (N'Jameh Camara) are felt more acutely on Doyle's bare wood stage and planked rear walls, ornamented with chairs (Doyle did the scenic design as well). The same applies to Celie's triumphs, which burst off the stage with as much color as "Miss Celie's Pants" (Ann Hould-Ward's cheekiest costume pieces, which brighten a world previously overtaken by exclusively dull tones).
Of course, Doyle's wooden canvas is nothing without the brush strokes that fill it, and the cast taking up that charge is neck deep in powerhouse voices and beautiful actors living this story to its fullest potential. From the opening number, Angela Birchett, Bianca Horn, and Brit West belt us to high heaven as the gossiping Church Ladies; Carla R. Stewart fluctuates between seductive and tender as Celie's beloved Shug Avery (her robust voice leans into the raunch of "Push da Button"); Carrie Compere blends vulnerability into her big, bold, and "Hell no!"-roaring Sophia (complemented by the jumpy Jay Donnell as Harpo); and Gregory, as Mister, melts into the warmth of his redemption story.
Even more so than on Broadway, the feeling of a unified ensemble is what comes to the fore of the Paper Mill mounting, which has the joyful feeling of a victory lap for the musical's recently concluded national tour (the majority of the touring cast returned for the New Jersey production). There are scene-stealing performances but no scene-stealers — a feat for any musical with such a collection of strong characters and one that brings a balance to the beautiful harmonies in Allee Willis and Brenda Russell's Southern gospel-inspired score.
That being said, you're going to leave The Color Purple with the name Adrianna Hicks seared into your mind. Her voice is smooth and flawless, each step of Celie's evolution seeps out of her pores, and when she bellows her final "I'm Here" in her transcendent eleven o'clock number— you better believe her.